Can blockchain help solve the Henrietta Lacks problem?
Science has come a long way since Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman from Baltimore, succumbed to cervical cancer at age 31 in 1951 -- only eight months after her diagnosis. Since then, research involving her cancer cells has advanced scientific understanding of the human papilloma virus, polio vaccines, medications for HIV/AIDS and in vitro fertilization.
Today, the World Health Organization reports that those cells are essential in mounting a COVID-19 response. But they were commercialized without the awareness or permission of Lacks or her family, who have filed a lawsuit against a biotech company for profiting from these “HeLa” cells.
While obtaining an individual's informed consent has become standard procedure before the use of tissues in medical research, many patients still don’t know what happens to their samples. Now, a new phone-based app is aiming to change that.
Tissue donors can track what scientists do with their samples while safeguarding privacy, through a pilot program initiated in October by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Precision Medicine. The program uses blockchain technology to offer patients this opportunity through the University of Pittsburgh's Breast Disease Research Repository, while assuring that their identities remain anonymous to investigators.
A blockchain is a digital, tamper-proof ledger of transactions duplicated and distributed across a computer system network. Whenever a transaction occurs with a patient’s sample, multiple stakeholders can track it while the owner’s identity remains encrypted. Special certificates called “nonfungible tokens,” or NFTs, represent patients’ unique samples on a trusted and widely used blockchain that reinforces transparency.
Blockchain could be used to notify people if cancer researchers discover that they have certain risk factors.
“Healthcare is very data rich, but control of that data often does not lie with the patient,” said Julius Bogdan, vice president of analytics for North America at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), a Chicago-based global technology nonprofit. “NFTs allow for the encapsulation of a patient’s data in a digital asset controlled by the patient.” He added that this technology enables a more secure and informed method of participating in clinical and research trials.
Without this technology, de-identification of patients’ samples during biomedical research had the unintended consequence of preventing them from discovering what researchers find -- even if that data could benefit their health. A solution was urgently needed, said Marielle Gross, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive science and bioethics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
“A researcher can learn something from your bio samples or medical records that could be life-saving information for you, and they have no way to let you or your doctor know,” said Gross, who is also an affiliate assistant professor at the Berman Institute. “There’s no good reason for that to stay the way that it is.”
For instance, blockchain could be used to notify people if cancer researchers discover that they have certain risk factors. Gross estimated that less than half of breast cancer patients are tested for mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 — tumor suppressor genes that are important in combating cancer. With normal function, these genes help prevent breast, ovarian and other cells from proliferating in an uncontrolled manner. If researchers find mutations, it’s relevant for a patient’s and family’s follow-up care — and that’s a prime example of how this newly designed app could play a life-saving role, she said.
Liz Burton was one of the first patients at the University of Pittsburgh to opt for the app -- called de-bi, which is short for decentralized biobank -- before undergoing a mastectomy for early-stage breast cancer in November, after it was diagnosed on a routine mammogram. She often takes part in medical research and looks forward to tracking her tissues.
“Anytime there’s a scientific experiment or study, I’m quick to participate -- to advance my own wellness as well as knowledge in general,” said Burton, 49, a life insurance service representative who lives in Carnegie, Pa. “It’s my way of contributing.”
Liz Burton was one of the first patients at the University of Pittsburgh to opt for the app before undergoing a mastectomy for early-stage breast cancer.
The pilot program raises the issue of what investigators may owe study participants, especially since certain populations, such as Black and indigenous peoples, historically were not treated in an ethical manner for scientific purposes. “It’s a truly laudable effort,” Tamar Schiff, a postdoctoral fellow in medical ethics at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, said of the endeavor. “Research participants are beautifully altruistic.”
Lauren Sankary, a bioethicist and associate director of the neuroethics program at Cleveland Clinic, agrees that the pilot program provides increased transparency for study participants regarding how scientists use their tissues while acknowledging individuals’ contributions to research.
However, she added, “it may require researchers to develop a process for ongoing communication to be responsive to additional input from research participants.”
Peter H. Schwartz, professor of medicine and director of Indiana University’s Center for Bioethics in Indianapolis, said the program is promising, but he wonders what will happen if a patient has concerns about a particular research project involving their tissues.
“I can imagine a situation where a patient objects to their sample being used for some disease they’ve never heard about, or which carries some kind of stigma like a mental illness,” Schwartz said, noting that researchers would have to evaluate how to react. “There’s no simple answer to those questions, but the technology has to be assessed with an eye to the problems it could raise.”
To truly make a difference, blockchain must enable broad consent from patients, not just de-identification.
As a result, researchers may need to factor in how much information to share with patients and how to explain it, Schiff said. There are also concerns that in tracking their samples, patients could tell others what they learned before researchers are ready to publicly release this information. However, Bogdan, the vice president of the HIMSS nonprofit, believes only a minimal study identifier would be stored in an NFT, not patient data, research results or any type of proprietary trial information.
Some patients may be confused by blockchain and reluctant to embrace it. “The complexity of NFTs may prevent the average citizen from capitalizing on their potential or vendors willing to participate in the blockchain network,” Bogdan said. “Blockchain technology is also quite costly in terms of computational power and energy consumption, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.”
In addition, this nascent, groundbreaking technology is immature and vulnerable to data security flaws, disputes over intellectual property rights and privacy issues, though it does offer baseline protections to maintain confidentiality. To truly make a difference, blockchain must enable broad consent from patients, not just de-identification, said Robyn Shapiro, a bioethicist and founding attorney at Health Sciences Law Group near Milwaukee.
The Henrietta Lacks story is a prime example, Shapiro noted. During her treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins, Lacks’s tissue was de-identified (albeit not entirely, because her cell line, HeLa, bore her initials). After her death, those cells were replicated and distributed for important and lucrative research and product development purposes without her knowledge or consent.
Nonetheless, Shapiro thinks that the initiative by the University of Pittsburgh and Johns Hopkins has potential to solve some ethical challenges involved in research use of biospecimens. “Compared to the system that allowed Lacks’s cells to be used without her permission, Shapiro said, “blockchain technology using nonfungible tokens that allow patients to follow their samples may enhance transparency, accountability and respect for persons who contribute their tissue and clinical data for research.”
Read more about laws that have prevented people from the rights to their own cells.
Mammograms are necessary breast cancer checks for women as they reach the recommended screening age between 40 and 50 years. Yet, many find the procedure uncomfortable. “I have large breasts, and to be able to image the full breast, the radiographer had to manipulate my breast within the machine, which took time and was quite uncomfortable,” recalls Angela, who preferred not to disclose her last name.
Breast cancer is the most widespread cancer in the world, affecting 2.3 million women in 2020. Screening exams such as mammograms can help find breast cancer early, leading to timely diagnosis and treatment. If this type of cancer is detected before the disease has spread, the 5-year survival rate is 99 percent. But some women forgo mammograms due to concerns about radiation or painful compression of breasts. Other issues, such as low income and a lack of access to healthcare, can also serve as barriers, especially for underserved populations.
Researchers at the University of Canterbury and startup Tiro Medical in Christchurch, New Zealand are hoping their new device—which doesn’t involve any radiation or compression of the breasts—could increase the accuracy of breast cancer screening, broaden access and encourage more women to get checked. They’re digging into clues from the way buildings move in an earthquake to help detect more cases of this disease.
Earthquake engineering inspires new breast cancer screening tech
What’s underneath a surface affects how it vibrates. Earthquake engineers look at the vibrations of swaying buildings to identify the underlying soil and tissue properties. “As the vibration wave travels, it reflects the stiffness of the material between that wave and the surface,” says Geoff Chase, professor of engineering at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Chase is applying this same concept to breasts. Analyzing the surface motion of the breast as it vibrates could reveal the stiffness of the tissues underneath. Regions of high stiffness could point to cancer, given that cancerous breast tissue can be up to 20 times stiffer than normal tissue. “If in essence every woman’s breast is soft soil, then if you have some granite rocks in there, we’re going to see that on the surface,” explains Chase.
The earthquake-inspired device exceeds the 87 percent sensitivity of a 3D mammogram.
That notion underpins a new breast screening device, the brainchild of Chase. Women lie face down, with their breast being screened inside a circular hole and the nipple resting on a small disc called an actuator. The actuator moves up and down, between one and two millimeters, so there’s a small vibration, “almost like having your phone vibrate on your nipple,” says Jessica Fitzjohn, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Canterbury who collaborated on the device design with Chase.
Cameras surrounding the device take photos of the breast surface motion as it vibrates. The photos are fed into image processing algorithms that convert them into data points. Then, diagnostic algorithms analyze those data points to find any differences in the breast tissue. “We’re looking for that stiffness contrast which could indicate a tumor,” Fitzjohn says.
The device has been tested in a clinical trial of 14 women: one with healthy breasts and 13 with a tumor in one breast. The cohort was small but diverse, varying in age, breast volume and tumor size.
Results from the trial yielded a sensitivity rate, or the likelihood of correctly detecting breast cancer, of 85 percent. Meanwhile, the device’s specificity rate, or the probability of diagnosing healthy breasts, was 77 percent. By combining and optimizing certain diagnostic algorithms, the device reached between 92 and 100 percent sensitivity and between 80 and 86 percent specificity, which is comparable to the latest 3D mammogram technology. Called tomosynthesis, these 3D mammograms take a number of sharper, clearer and more detailed 3D images compared to the single 2D image of a conventional mammogram, and have a specificity score of 92 percent. Although the earthquake-inspired device’s specificity is lower, it exceeds the 87 percent sensitivity of a 3D mammogram.
The team hopes that cameras with better resolution can help improve the numbers. And with a limited amount of data in the first trial, the researchers are looking into funding for another clinical trial to validate their results on a larger cohort size.
Additionally, during the trial, the device correctly identified one woman’s breast as healthy, while her prior mammogram gave a false positive. The device correctly identified it as being healthy tissue. It was also able to capture the tiniest tumor at 7 millimeters—around a third of an inch or half as long as an aspirin tablet.
Diagnostic findings from the device are immediate.
When using the earthquake-inspired device, women lie face down, with their breast being screened inside circular holes.
University of Canterbury.
But more testing is needed to “prove the device’s ability to pick up small breast cancers less than 10 to 15 millimeters in size, as we know that finding cancers when they are small is the best way of improving outcomes,” says Richard Annand, a radiologist at Pacific Radiology in New Zealand. He explains that mammography already detects most precancerous lesions, so if the device will only be able to find large masses or lumps it won’t be particularly useful. While not directly involved in administering the clinical trial for the device, Annand was a director at the time for Canterbury Breastcare, where the trial occurred.
Meanwhile, Monique Gary, a breast surgical oncologist and medical director of the Grand View Health Cancer program in Pennsylvania, U.S., is excited to see new technologies advancing breast cancer screening and early detection. But she notes that the device may be challenging for “patients who are unable to lay prone, such as pregnant women as well as those who are differently abled, and this machine might exclude them.” She adds that it would also be interesting to explore how breast implants would impact the device’s vibrational frequency.
Diagnostic findings from the device are immediate, with the results available “before you put your clothes back on,” Chase says. The absence of any radiation is another benefit, though Annand considers it a minor edge “as we know the radiation dose used in mammography is minimal, and the advantages of having a mammogram far outweigh the potential risk of radiation.”
The researchers also conducted a separate ergonomic trial with 40 women to assess the device’s comfort, safety and ease of use. Angela was part of that trial and described the experience as “easy, quick, painless and required no manual intervention from an operator.” And if a person is uncomfortable being topless or having their breasts touched by someone else, “this type of device would make them more comfortable and less exposed,” she says.
While mammograms remain “the ‘gold standard’ in breast imaging, particularly screening, physicians need an option that can be used in combination with mammography.
Fitzjohn acknowledges that “at the moment, it’s quite a crude prototype—it’s just a block that you lie on.” The team prioritized function over form initially, but they’re now planning a few design improvements, including more cushioning for the breasts and the surface where the women lie on.
While mammograms remains “the ‘gold standard’ in breast imaging, particularly screening, physicians need an option that is good at excluding breast cancer when used in combination with mammography, has good availability, is easy to use and is affordable. There is the possibility that the device could fill this role,” Annand says.
Indeed, the researchers envision their new breast screening device as complementary to mammograms—a prescreening tool that could make breast cancer checks widely available. As the device is portable and doesn’t require specialized knowledge to operate, it can be used in clinics, pop-up screening facilities and rural communities. “If it was easily accessible, particularly as part of a checkup with a [general practitioner] or done in a practice the patient is familiar with, it may encourage more women to access this service,” Angela says. For those who find regular mammograms uncomfortable or can’t afford them, the earthquake-inspired device may be an option—and an even better one.
Broadening access could prompt more women to go for screenings, particularly younger women at higher risk of getting breast cancer because of a family history of the disease or specific gene mutations. “If we can provide an option for them then we can catch those cancers earlier,” Fitzjohn syas. “By taking screening to people, we’re increasing patient-centric care.”
With the team aiming to lower the device’s cost to somewhere between five and eight times less than mammography equipment, it would also be valuable for low-to-middle-income nations that are challenged to afford the infrastructure for mammograms or may not have enough skilled radiologists.
For Fitzjohn, the ultimate goal is to “increase equity in breast screening and catch cancer early so we have better outcomes for women who are diagnosed with breast cancer.”
A promising development in science in recent years has been the use technology to optimize something natural. One-upping nature's wisdom isn't easy. In many cases, we haven't - and maybe we can't - figure it out. But today's episode features a fascinating example: using tech to optimize psychedelic mushrooms.
These mushrooms have been used for religious, spiritual and medicinal purposes for thousands of years, but only in the past several decades have scientists brought psychedelics into the lab to enhance them and maximize their therapeutic value.
Today’s podcast guest, Doug Drysdale, is doing important work to lead this effort. Drysdale is the CEO of a company called Cybin that has figured out how to make psilocybin more potent, so it can be administered in smaller doses without side effects.
The natural form of psilocybin has been studied increasingly in the realm of mental health. Taking doses of these mushrooms appears to help people with anxiety and depression by spurring the development of connections in the brain, an example of neuroplasticity. The process basically shifts the adult brain from being fairly rigid like dried clay into a malleable substance like warm wax - the state of change that's constantly underway in the developing brains of children.
Neuroplasticity in adults seems to unlock some of our default ways of of thinking, the habitual thought patterns that’ve been associated with various mental health problems. Some promising research suggests that psilocybin causes a reset of sorts. It makes way for new, healthier thought patterns.
So what is Drysdale’s secret weapon to bring even more therapeutic value to psilocybin? It’s a process called deuteration. It focuses on the hydrogen atoms in psilocybin. These atoms are very light and don’t stick very well to carbon, which is another atom in psilocybin. As a result, our bodies can easily breaks down the bonds between the hydrogen and carbon atoms. For many people, that means psilocybin gets cleared from the body too quickly, before it can have a therapeutic benefit.
In deuteration, scientists do something simple but ingenious: they replace the hydrogen atoms with a molecule called deuterium. It’s twice as heavy as hydrogen and forms tighter bonds with the carbon. Because these pairs are so rock-steady, they slow down the rate at which psilocybin is metabolized, so it has more sustained effects on our brains.
Cybin isn’t Drysdale’s first go around at this - far from it. He has over 30 years of experience in the healthcare sector. During this time he’s raised around $4 billion of both public and private capital, and has been named Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Before Cybin, he was the founding CEO of a pharmaceutical company called Alvogen, leading it from inception to around $500 million in revenues, across 35 countries. Drysdale has also been the head of mergers and acquisitions at Actavis Group, leading 15 corporate acquisitions across three continents.
In this episode, Drysdale walks us through the promising research of his current company, Cybin, and the different therapies he’s developing for anxiety and depression based not just on psilocybin but another psychedelic compound found in plants called DMT. He explains how they seem to have such powerful effects on the brain, as well as the potential for psychedelics to eventually support other use cases, including helping us strive toward higher levels of well-being. He goes on to discuss his views on mindfulness and lifestyle factors - such as optimal nutrition - that could help bring out hte best in psychedelics.
Doug Drysdale full bio
Doug Drysdale twitter
Cybin development pipeline
Cybin's promising phase 2 research on depression
Johns Hopkins psychedelics research and psilocybin research
Mets owner Steve Cohen invests in psychedelic therapies
Doug Drysdale, CEO of Cybin